Monday, February 20, 2017

Blessings of the Kingdom

 And seeing the multitudes, He went up on a mountain, and when He was seated His disciples came to Him.  Then He opened His mouth and taught them, saying:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
For they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
For they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
For they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
For they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
For they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
For they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake.  Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you."

- Matthew 5:1-12

On Saturday our reading was in Mark's Gospel (12:35-44), which describes events taking place during Holy Week, in the temple in Jerusalem.   Jesus answered and said, while He taught in the temple, "How is it that the scribes say that the Christ is the Son of David?  For David himself said by the Holy Spirit:  'The LORD said to my Lord, "Sit at My right hand, till I make Your enemies Your footstool."'  Therefore David himself calls Him 'Lord'; how is He then his Son?"  And the common people heard Him gladly.  Then He said to them in His teaching, "Beware of the scribes, who desire to go around in long robes, love greetings in the marketplaces, the best seats in the synagogues, and the best places at feasts, who devour widows' houses, and for a pretense make long prayers.  These will receive greater condemnation."  Now Jesus sat opposite the treasury and saw how the people put money into the treasury.  And many who were rich put in much.  Then one poor widow came and threw in two mites, which make a quadrans.  So He called His disciples to Himself and said to them, "Assuredly, I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all those who have given to the treasury; for they all put in out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all that she had, her whole livelihood."

 And seeing the multitudes, He went up on a mountain, and when He was seated His disciples came to Him.   In today's reading the lectionary takes us to Matthew's Gospel, and we begin with chapter 5.  This is the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus begins with what are called The Beatitudes.  They are a description of the blessedness of life in the Kingdom; that is, the blessedness of discipleship.  My study bible calls them the joys of discipleship, the blessed way of life.  It says, "The people of God await the rewards Jesus promises in this section."  In the Old Testament, it adds, only a select few were chosen to hear God directly.  But here, God Incarnate speaks to the multitudes face to face.  The mountain is a place where divine action enters into human history -- this is where God reveals Himself to human beings (17:1; Genesis 22:2; Exodus 3:1; 3 Kings 18:20).  To be seated is the traditional Jewish position for teaching with authority.

Then He opened His mouth and taught them, saying:  "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."  We often associate blessedness with material prosperity or happiness, but that's not really what it means.  Blessedness is about a spiritual state of being that has to do with holiness; it conveys here a spiritual exaltation, a spiritual gift.  "Poor" in Hebrew, says my study bible, means both those who are materially poor and also the faithful God's people.  The poor in spirit are therefore those who have the heart of the poor.  That is, the same attitude of humility or modesty and dependence upon God.  Consider then what gratitude means in this context. 

"Blessed are those who mourn, or they shall be comforted." My study bible says that those who mourn sorrow over the sufferings of this life (9:23), the sufferings of others (John 11:35), the state of the world (Luke 19:41), and their own sins (Luke 7:36-38).  All of these are therefore comforted by the power of God in the present time and in the age to come.  My study bible adds that holy sorrow is part of repentance, conversion, and virtuous action -- and therefore the firstfruit of infinite joy, the road of faith.  This is as distinguished from ungodly sorrow, which is one that leads to despair (2 Corinthians 7:10).

"Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth."  Meekness, says my study bible, is an attitude of being content with both honor and dishonor.  It's an imitation of Christ, who said, "Learn from Me, for I am gentle [meek] and lowly in heart" (11:29).  Those who are meek are God-controlled and have mastery over their passions, a note tells us, particularly anger.  Meekness isn't passive weakness but rather strength directed and under control.  What we must notice about these blessings is that they are those things that God shares with us:  God's "meekness" is absolute power used without undue harshness, with love and mercy.  The earth that the meek will inherit isn't power or worldly possession, but rather the new earth which is everlasting (Revelation 21:1). 

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled."  To hunger and thirst for righteousness is to desire the presence of God and God's kingdom as deeply as one desires all else that sustains life, and to put it first.  My study bible says such people have a desperate craving for what is right before God, the way a starving person craves food.

"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy."  My study bible calls mercy love set in motion, expressed in action.  In God's mercy, He took on our sufferings in order to grant us His Kingdom and set us free from the evil one.  In light of God's mercy, we practice mercy to be "like God."  This will not be the last time Jesus teaches us about this form of exchange, and the need to practice and learn to express that which we desire to receive for ourselves.

"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God."  Pure means unmixed, unadulterated -- not compromised or stained with anything else.  The pure in heart are those devoted to God with whole heart, and don't accept to compromise in lives that serve, worship, and love as God asks.  My study bible says that with the help of the Holy Spirit, those who have this depth of pure hearts will practice virtue, have no conscious evil in themselves, and seek to live in temperance.  We may all strive for this.  A note reads, "When the soul's only desire is God, and a person's will holds to this desire, then that person will indeed see God everywhere."  Jesus frequently speaks of such depth of the heart, and it is exemplified in those whose faith He singles out, such as perhaps the poor widow in yesterday's reading (above).

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God."  As Christ is the source of peace, says my study bible, He found no price sufficient for peace than shedding His own blood.  In doing so, He reveals Himself as Reconciler, the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6; Ephesians 2:14-16).  Peace is also a gift of the Holy Spirit (as we understand about all the Beatitudes), and it comes to those who imitate Christ.  Peacemakers are those who share God's peace with those around them, in imitation of Christ's love and participating in His work.  (Thereby is peace also related to the two great commandments.)  By God's grace, says my study bible, peacemakers become sons of God themselves. 

"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."  My study bible tells us that children of God uphold truth, refuse to compromise with the ways of the world, and give themselves to no other (6:24, 33; see also 1 Corinthians 6:19-20).  Like Jesus, such people will also be persecuted for righteousness sake (John 15:18-20).  Christ's kingdom, a note reads, is the crown awaiting the righteous.  To dwell in the kingdom of heaven isn't about a future far off happening; it is about living that life of righteousness in this world, even when it means persecution at the hands of the "worldly."

"Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake.  Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you."  Those who suffer persecution for Christ, says my study bible, are those who walk the road of the prophets, saints, and martyrs.   To be exceedingly glad is to exult; the Greek word literally comes from that which means to jump for joy.   (See Acts 5:40-41.)

 The Beatitudes tell us about the blessedness of the Kingdom.  That is, what it truly means to be blessed as a disciple.  We note that none of these things promised by Christ are material goods.  Rather, He even includes persecutions as part of the blessings, when He speaks of rejoicing and being exceedingly glad when one is reviled and persecuted, and spoken of in slanderous ways for the sake of Christ, and for the sake of righteousness.  These blessings are akin to the fruits of the Spirit, which St. Paul writes are "love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23).  St. Paul adds, "Against such there is no law."  To live the life of the Kingdom while still in this world is living the life of discipleship -- no less than that.  As such the blessings one accrues are the blessings of heaven, of the things that are a part of holiness.  They are the realities in which we may participate in communion with Christ and with the "great cloud of witnesses," the whole of the kingdom of heaven.  These are transcendent realities that sometimes seem completely incongruous with worldly circumstances.  Here is where we find joy that comes in travail or persecution when it comes for the sake of righteousness.  Here is where we find peace that passes understanding.  It is of this blessedness that Christ tells the disciples at the Last Supper that He gives His them His word, that "My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full" (John 15:11).  He tells them, "Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid" (John 14:27).   These are all hallmarks of a transcendent reality in which we may participate, with which we are in communion, even as we live our worldly lives.  And that is the blessedness of which He speaks here, the life of discipleship, the life of the Kingdom.  These are the realities that add everything to our lives, that will color what we are all about, no matter the walk of life and whatever the path is that we follow in discipleship to Him.  One can live in lavish material circumstances and be miserable, as modern life has taught so many.  But to live with His purpose, His wisdom, and to share in that life is to have wealth that passes all understanding -- even when our worldly circumstances would defy such an assumption.  Let us remember His love, even as we share in it, and by so doing we are capable of sharing it with others.  What we receive from His love always shares itself with the world.

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